I am a hash hound. I'm talking about a classic American breakfast dish, a diner delicacy, crusty and crisp. Let sophisticates have their omelets and eggs benedict. I raise my fork for hash.
The term hash comes from the French word hacher, "to chop," and is etymologically related to the word hatchet. In his famous diary Samuel Pepys reported eating rabbit hash in 1662. Corned beef hash is a distinctly American dish, writes Stuart Berg Flexner in Listening to America. It was served to the troops during World War I, where it went by the name of "corned Willie."
Hash originated as a way to use up leftovers. By the 1860s, a cheap restaurant was called a "hash house" or "hashery." This humble fare has given us numerous expressions, such as "to settle your hash" and "hash things over."
The most common version of hash contains corned beef and potatoes. But hash can be prepared with an almost endless variety of ingredients. The French have a fondness for hachis Parmentier, chopped lamb and potatoes baked with a fragrant topping of garlic, parsley, and butter. In seafaring communities, like Nantucket, it was common to find fish hash. Salt cod hash was popular enough to be included by Fannie Farmer in "The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book."
Hash isn't only found at inexpensive eateries. Boston's Locke-Ober Cafe is famous for its roast beef hash, served daily at lunchtime. In my pursuit for fine hash, I have sampled turkey hash, venison hash and hash made with peppered pastrami. Hash is the great common denominator: It turns up in swank hotel dining rooms and at homey luncheonettes, prized by rich and poor men, alike.
This humble dish has inspired some of America's most creative chefs. Allen Susser of the restaurant Chef Allen in Miami serves a rock shrimp hash on a potato pancake. Gordon Hamersley of Boston's Hamersley's Bistro created a hash based on his famous roast chicken.
Chefs are divided on the proper way to chop ingredients. Chef Jam Navaraj of Locke-Ober Cafe puts his roast beef through a meat grinder. Lydia Shire, owner chef of the restaurant Biba in Boston, goes for a "kaleidoscope" look, cutting the ingredients into 1-inch pieces, so you can still recognize each one. "I like a rough look," says Ms. Shire, "I like to be able to see what I'm eating."
Opinions also vary on the proper flavoring for hash. The basic ingredients, of course, are meat, potatoes and onions. Fresh herbs are considered essential by Mr. Susser, Ms. Shire and Mr. Hamersley. Rural New Englanders added beets to mixture to make red flannel hash. Fannie Farmer flavored her salt cod hash with a rather un-Yankee combination of tomatoes and garlic.
All the chefs agree that hash should be served crisp. To achieve that crispness, Ms. Shire recommends using a large non-stick pan. "If you crowd the pan, the ingredients will steam, not fry," she says. Ms. Shire omits adding liquid. "You're aiming for hash, not mush," she says.
Traditionally, hash is accompanied by poached eggs. However, concern about the safety of partially cooked eggs has prompted the U.S.D.A. Meat and Poultry Hotline to recommend against them. To be safe when cooking eggs, the yolk should be cooked all the way through (or the egg cooked until, on a meat thermometer, its internal temperature reaches 160 degrees), says hotline spokeswoman Diane Van. For practical purposes, that means try serving hash with herb-enhanced scrambled eggs.
Hash is a protean food, compelling at breakfast, comforting at lunch and unexpectedly satisfying for supper. The basic formula -- onions, potatoes, and meat -- can be applied to almost any leftover. The following hashes range from classic to exotic.
Roast beef hash Roast beef hash has long been a lunch specialty at the Locke-Ober Cafe in Boston. "What makes it so good," says the restaurant's chef, Jam Navaraj, "is that we use leftover prime
1 pound roast beef
2 or 3 large baked or boiled potatoes
1 small onion
2 stalks celery
2 tablespoons butter, plus 2 to 3 tablespoons for frying the hash
1/4 cup brown stock
1/2 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce, or to taste
a few drops of Tabasco sauce, or to taste
freshly grated nutmeg
salt and fresh black pepper
Grind the meat through the medium plate of a meat grinder (or finely chop it by hand or in a food processor). If the potato is not already cooked, do so now. Peel the potato and coarsely grate it. Finely chop the onion and celery, and saute them in 2 tablespoons butter in a small frying pan for 3 to 4 minutes, or until tender.
Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Mix all the ingredients (except eggs) in a large bowl. Transfer the hash to a roasting pan just large enough to hold it and bake it for 20 minutes. Skim off any grease that rises to the surface. The recipe can be prepared ahead to this stage.
Just before serving, heat the remaining butter in a non-stick frying pan. Add the hash and fry it over medium heat for 4 to 5 minutes per side, or until the exterior is brown and crunchy.